Christopher Cross' Grammy Sweep Triggered a Backlash: Should Billie Eilish Be Concerned?

AP Photo
Christopher Cross, best album Grammy winner, photographed backstage at the 1981 Grammy Awards in New York City on Feb. 25, 1981. 

It just may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Cross. If he had just won one or two awards, few would have paid much notice.

The moment of Christopher Cross' greatest glory was also his undoing. It happened at the 23rd annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 25, 1981. Cross was nominated for six awards --and won five, including each of the "Big Four" awards -- album, record and song of the year plus best new artist. It is, to this day, the only time in Grammy history that one artist has swept the Big Four awards in the same year.

It just may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Cross. If he had just won one or two awards, few would have paid much notice. If he'd won best new artist, he would have beaten critics' faves Pretenders, but critics were used to having their favorites lose in that category. Elvis Costello had lost to A Taste of Honey two years earlier. John Prine and Eagles lost to America in 1972. Elton John lost to Carpenters in 1970.

But Cross' undoing won everything. His eponymous debut album beat Pink Floyd's The Wall and Barbra Streisand's Guilty for album of the year. His serene ballad "Sailing" beat Frank Sinatra's "Theme from New York New York" in three categories -- record and song of the year and best arrangement accompanying vocalist(s).

The sweep practically invited people to say, "Oh, he's not that good." Instead of bringing people to his side, the sweep turned many people off. Cross was a talented pop artist -- not a groundbreaking artist, but a skilled hit-maker, the kind who might have had a solid, five-year run of hits.

The Grammy sweep may have actually shortened his career. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do," which he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen, topped the Hot 100 eight months after the Grammy sweep. It won an Oscar and brought Cross three more Grammy nominations (but no wins). Cross had two more top 20 hits, "All Right" and "Think of Laura," from his sophomore album, Another Page. But even a reunion with Bacharach and Sager to co-write the song "A Chance for Heaven," the swimming theme from the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A., didn't reverse his flagging momentum. He hasn't appeared on the Hot 100 since 1985.

Billie Eilish is a strong position to equal Cross' feat of winning each of the Big Four awards when the 62nd annual Grammy Awards are presented on Jan. 26. She's a cinch to win best new artist. Her debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, could win album of the year. "Bad Guy" could take record and song of the year.

Should people in Eilish's camp be worried about a Cross-like backlash?

I don't think so. Every artist is different, every situation is different. Critics, who were never in Cross' corner, have been supportive of Eilish. Her album has an impressive 81 score at Metacritic.com. (Metacritic didn't exist in 1980, but Cross' album probably would have had a middling score if such a thing had existed -- not because it wasn't good, but because adult contemporary/pop isn't the kind of music that most critics tend to like.)

If Eilish does sweep the Big Four awards, few will say, "Oh, she's not that good." For one thing, her music has more personality than Cross's. The sassy "duh" interjection in "Bad Guy" is something Cross would never have thought of. Also, she's younger (and female), which may also make critics and others feel more protective of her. She's still just 17. She'll be 18 on Grammy night; Cross, by contrast, was 29 at the time of his Grammy sweep.

If Eilish does clean up at the Grammys, she can go to the post-telecast parties and celebrate without any worries. To be sure, she would be well advised to write and record a killer sophomore album and not try to coast on the success of her debut album. But that's always good advice.

2020 Grammy Awards


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